WATCH: Full - P. Fitzgerald News Conference
With time ticking away before Northwestern's 2011 season opener at Boston College Saturday, NUsports.com special contributor Skip Myslenski reports on position battles, injury updates and the status of a refrigerator meant to feed six down linemen.
No news, really, when it comes Dan Persa's status for the 'Cats season opener Saturday at Boston College. "Danny's doing great," Pat Fitzgerald would, once again, say of his quarterback. "He keeps improving every day. I feel confident he's going to keep going down that track, then we'll see how things go and progress throughout the course of the week. But like I said, I think, 1,000,432 times, he's a guy who's going to do everything in his power to get healthy and ready to play. So. If he's ready to go, he'll start, if he's not, he won't. Earth-shattering statement there."
In the belly of Fitzgerald's meet-the-media session on Monday, a questioner used the word uncertainty while referring to his team's quarterback situation. "There's no uncertainty for us at the quarterback position," Fitzgerald strongly averred. "We're good. We're great, actually. We have full confidence in whatever direction we're going to go."
Sophomore quarterback Kain Colter arrived in Evanston last year off arm surgery and, though he had done some rehab, he had not done it intensely enough to be fully locked-and-loaded. So through much of last fall, when he was listed as third on the depth chart, he not only worked on improving his strength. The coach's also thought of using him at wide receiver to take advantage of his athleticism. But then, of course, Persa went down with his Achilles and Colter slipped into a backup role and, against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, gave a glimpse of his possibilities.
Still, when asked to compare him then-and-now, Fitzgerald fairly gushed while saying: "Last year and this year, night and day. . . He's been outstanding. He's got a great grasp of the offense. Can make all the throws. Very dynamic with the ball in his hands. Understands what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish. Does he have 25 games of game experience? Not necessarily. But he definitely has a ton of reps and he's poised to go if that's what ends up happening."
THE VIEW FROM THE TRENCHES:
Persa is one of the four 'Cat captains, but he was rehabbing when the other three succeeded Fitzgerald behind the microphones on Monday. He, then, was unavailable for questioning. But offensive tackle Al Netter, another of the captains, was, and he was asked if he was as curious as everyone else about who would be at quarterback come Saturday. "I don't know if curious is the right word," he said. "I think that we're just preparing for whatever situation presents itself. Both Kain (Colter) and Dan have been putting in great reps with the ones and both have been preparing as if they're going to be the starting quarterback."
Persa's injury, we all know, was followed by the collapse of the 'Cats, who gave up 48 points to Illinois and 70 points to Wisconsin and 45 points to Tech while ending their season with three straight defeats. Often, since then, Fitzgerald has said that failures throughout his program led to that demise, but a big reason for it was clearly a defensive meltdown. So Monday we asked safety Brian Peters, another of this year's captains, just what his unit had learned from that ending. "The biggest thing we learned is we've got to respond as a defense, we've got to step up as a defense," he openly-and-honestly declared. "We got exposed last year. We didn't stick together. We didn't back up the offense. We didn't hold up our end of the deal. That's the biggest thing. We've got to keep fighting, keep scratching, keep clawing no matter who's at quarterback."
Did the defense figuratively exhale when Persa went down?
"No. That's definitely not what went down. When the (barnyard epithet) hit the fan against Illinois, we didn't rally and make a play when we needed to. We scored enough points that game to where we should have won, but we didn't step up on defense and make plays as we should have."
Is that a lesson that can be applied here, where there is once more uncertainty surrounding the quarterback?
"We keep harping on it a lot," he admitted. "It might sound bad, but we keep harping on the last three games of last season. Those who don't recognize the past are condemned to repeat it. The biggest thing is we keep thinking of that. Coach Hank (defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz) is a big emphasizer on that. Focus on last year, how we need to continually improve on making plays and finishing every rep and every series."
CHECKING THE TWO DEEP:
The starting running back will be either sophomore Mike Trumpy or senior Jacob Schmidt. . . Redshirt freshman Collin Ellis, who appeared slated to start at Sam (strong side) linebacker, broke a finger last week and is out for at least the first two games. Senior Ben Johnson is now listed as the Sam starter backed up by another redshirt freshman, Chi Chi Ariguzo. . . Sophomore Jeff Budzien has won the competition to replace Stefan Demos as the 'Cat place-kicker. But junior Steve Flaherty is slated to handle kickoff duties. . . Sophomore Tyler Scott is listed as the starting left defensive end ahead of senior Kevin Watt, who started 10 games at that spot last season. . . Senior David Arnold, who has been sidelined by a foot injury, is back listed as the starting safety opposite Peters. But still expect to see redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell, whom this space has touted in the past. "He's a dynamic player, explosive and he'll come up there and hit you. He'll definitely be playing some role come Saturday," said senior corner Jordan Mabin. . . Jack Konopka, one true freshman, is listed as the backup to superback Drake Dunsmore. "He's a big, young man who can run," Fitzgerald said of him. "He's six-five, six-six, about 290 pounds. We thought initially he was going to come in and play offensive tackle. We started him at superback initially based on need, a couple guys dinged up. He took the role and ran with it.". . . Either sophomore Rashad Lawrence or another true freshman, the 6-foot-3 Christian Jones, is set to start at one wide receiver position. Lawrence may be remembered a bit from last season, when one of his dozen catches was a 50-yard, over-the-shoulder gem against Illinois State. Jones, in contrast, suffered a torn ACL the spring of his junior year in high school and after the 'Cats had tendered a scholarship offer, which they promised they would honor despite the injury. But he did manage to make it back to the field late last season ("That'll show you how tough he is," said Fitzgerald) and then was in Evanston during the summer to work with Kolter and Persa. "I think that time really helped him from a standpoint of maturation with our offense and being able to do different things with our quarterbacks," added Fitzgerald. "So I thought he was able to gain a lot of trust from the quarterbacks and it showed the minute he stepped on the field. Big guy, can really run, very physical out there on the perimeter."
Here is what Mabin said when asked the difference between this year's team and others he has been on: "A big senior class, everyone's just dedicated. I would say just the buy-in is a lot more than in previous years. We have a big senior class with great leadership, and I think that trickles down through the team. Guys show good examples and the young guys are following along. That's just making both the offense and defense a lot stronger depth-wise from top to bottom. So far, so good. We're amped up. Game week."
AND FINALLY, ON A LIGHTER NOTE:
The 310-pound Netter rooms with 305-pound defensive tackle Niko Mafuli and fellow offensive linemen Ben Burkett (290), Colin Armstrong (290), Doug Bartels (295) and Chuck Porcelli (315). "There's two refrigerators, two freezers (in the house) and you can't find one square inch in any of them," he reports. "It's a lot of fun, but it's tough keeping the place clean. Especially the kitchen."